Édouard Levé – A Night at the Strip Club
Given recent interest in the work of French writer, photographer and artist Édouard Levé and the acclaim which followed the publication of his Suicide (Dalkey 2011) last year, I thought I’d share this. It’s my translation of short piece by Levé called “Un Soir au Strip-Tease,” which was originally published in Mouvement: l’indisciplinaire des arts vivants from early 2007.
A Night at the Strip Club
Y., a dancer who acted in my piece Pornographie suggested that I come to see her some evening at her day-job, the S. She worked as a stripper there. Being interested in the swinging scene a few years ago and having visited Les Chandelles, l’Overside and the Pluriel Club for research, I decided to accept her invitation, hoping that this spectacle would turn up a found object I could one day recycle in my art.
The S. can be found in the 17ème arrondissement, not far from Porte Maillot. The entrance looks like that of a New York nightclub from the 50s, but erected upon the dull [terne] Avenue des Ternes. Two colossal guardians are planted outside the door like the obligatory accoutrements of somewhere that wants to appear exclusive: considering the ease with which the gentlemen in front of me enter, I gather that their purpose is purely decorative, like the red cord which hangs between two gilded metal posts. We leave our clothing in the great foyer, presided over by men the size of wrestlers. Taking the stairs down, we spill out onto a bar. This is what the S’s website says: “Upon purple walls and absinthe-coloured stairs which lead down to the main room, a patchwork of fans offer a foretaste of the venue’s subtle tones. A few steps beyond, the cabaret exhales the aroma of the boudoir, reminiscent of Shanghai in the 20s. Bathed in distressed reds and gold, the sofas all bear different motifs and details, harmonizing perfectly with the fabrics, curtains, and the orgue à parfums, an illuminated array of bottles containing every sort of feminine accessory.” It takes a little imagination. 260 seats are available for patrons. There are no female patrons here. The only women are waitresses and dancers. The latter are distributed between two or three podiums spread out across a huge room, where low ceilings try in vain to create some intimacy. The dancers follow, one after another, onto the podiums, from the center of which protrudes a metal pole which they hold, around which they wind and from which they dangle themselves. This accessory is necessary for the choreography but above all serves to flatter the ego of the spectators who take it for their penis: the size, hardness and brilliance calls to mind their wildest dreams.
I write “dancers” rather than “strippers,” because it seems to me that a stripper disrobes slowly, and the act’s appeal lies in the suspense of a gradual unveiling. Here, however, the dancers appear in g-string and bra, and it takes at most a few seconds until they remove the top part. For the bottom, one must go into a room at the back, where one gets full nudity either in public or in a private lounge. In the largest room, “modesty” seems to persist.
I seat myself in front of a podium, and behold an enormous woman. It’s perhaps an effect of the low angle: the podium rises far above seated spectators. She gives herself over to a fixed routine. She turns around the bar, hangs there by her arms or her legs, rubs herself against the immense cock, sways obscenely, dances a little looking a spectator in the eye and leaves. The operation lasts five minutes. A moment’s beat and another one takes up the baton, offering pretty much the same choreography. The aim of this show is to whet the appetites of spectators and entice them to get themselves a personal “striptease.” For a few ten euro notes, the client can ask the stripper to give him a dance up close. She then contorts herself a few centimetres away from him, caresses his face with long hair that she flicks at him while she bends in his direction, before straightening up all of a sudden. The tresses follow. Her breasts bounce and shake at eye level. Some dancers have the chests of professional wet nurses. Their breasts surround the client’s face. I admire the precision of the ordeal, as never does a nipple make contact with the face. Yet it is a few millimetres away. The dancer doesn’t touch the client, who is not allowed to touch her. Everything happens in this suspense and this distance, especially as the scene is played out in public in front of friends or colleagues from the office. One doesn’t come here alone. This is the paradox of the S.: we have come here together to enjoy a show we would rather be conducted in private.
For a heftier sum, one may also ask a dancer for a performance in a private room. Private? I guess. The room is illuminated by weak light. Some one-person tables have been set up; a half-dozen dancer/client couples are busying themselves at the same time. The dancer does pretty much the same work as in the main room, but out of the salacious eye of the public. Main purpose of the procedure: the client can triumphantly return to the table as if he had conquered the dancer and, for his colleagues’ benefit , make up what could have happened in the mysterious room.
Like VIP rooms that have now become widespread at professional events and selected attractions, the interest lies not in that to which we have access, but on the contrary, that which we are denied. It’s better to fantasise about these rooms than get into them: they are “de-phantasmagoric” sites.
As for dance: would the S benefit from the guidance of some choreographers? You can believe it, judging by the mediocrity on offer. But is inventiveness compatible with arousal? I asked myself this question during my research into pornography. I had the greatest difficulty finding inventive examples. Pornography is pavlovian: desire is roused by a coarse rod. We need to see sex, not art. Ideas and their expression are dislodged; our attention is turned away, toward the physical shape. Yet what is interesting about pornography is its substance – depth, even. Striptease adheres to the same specific codes as pornography.
But it’s more puritan. It is only the first step towards mental adultery. Does one cheat on one’s wife while masturbating in front of an image? You would have to ask a priest. Anyway, at the S. you’re definitely not cheating on anyone. Nothing is consummated, no substance discharged. There are witnesses, colleagues or friends. We touch only with our eyes. Honour is intact. One may return home and relay an account of the evening to one’s wife. Though the S. advertises a Stag Party special on its website, looking around at the assembled clientele, I see the harts of no future husbands. Instead, the crowd comprises forty year old men, in well-made suits, buying themselves a break having signed some contract or other.
Has dance something to learn from striptease? Parody, perhaps. As for what it might appropriate [détournement], however, there isn’t any more to be learned here than in the observation of contemporary gestures: assembly line, telecommuting, or fast food jobs… Striptease is a contemporary phenomenon among others.
I stayed an hour at the S. Y. is the only dancer that bothered me: flat chested, slim, economical not lavish gestures, she hadn’t the same body as her sisters. As she danced above one of the dozen Japanese men seated around an oval table, her distant, almost cold, demeanour frightened me. I forgot to ask what her stage name was. I looked on the website. Amidst the Venuses, Wildwests, Scorpios, Chanels and Bambis, I couldn’t find her.